How the Suburbs Rob the City
by Richard Risemberg (July 1997)

If you live in the city, right now there's a soccer mom holding the cold metal tailpipe of her minivan to your head. And she's going to fire it up! What does she want? To start with, she wants your money--and she wants it now. But not only that, she wants your mental and physical health, your children's safety, and your grandchildren's future. She needs it all to help support her habit. And the cops are on her side, and so is the mayor, and so is the governor. One false move, and you're history, pal. What do you do now? Surrender? Struggle? Or reason with her?

Maybe it'll take all three

A Place in the Country

The stereotypical American-plan suburb is popularly thought of as being isolated from the city. Both its proponents and its detractors often assume this is the case. The hard sell of suburbs is that they are anti-cities: everything that cities have that is unpleasant, such as crime, noise, traffic, and pollution, the suburbs do not have, while the qualities that city people miss out on burgeon in brilliant colors, like overwatered iceplant beds. And so the happy suburbanites stand tall in their back yards, boasting to their neighbors across the fence how they at last have broken free of downtown. And yet this is a lie: for the suburbs have only broken free of responsibility. They are, in fact, utterly dependent on their hinterlands of urban cores, which support them with various forms of subsidy, either in cash or in kind, and which receive in exchange nothing more than a further degradation of what could have been a vibrant city life.

Maybe the myth of suburban independence began with the first few suburbs, which were placed around the edge of the city where the farms began. Farms, of course, were physically self-sustaining in the days before petrochemical agriculture: a farm had its own water and food supply, by definition, and of course farming areas have a population density that, compared to even a dispersed city, is negligible. And farms support the city. So suburbanites tend to think of themselves as "rural." But a suburb is not a farm, a shade tree and a flowerbed feed no one but the snails, and when a farmer goes to work he just steps out his front door and is there; the suburbanite drives forty miles into the city. And there's the rub: a rural economy imposes a small population on the land and engenders relatively little traffic, often consisting of railroad trains or a small number of trucks, while literally keeping the city alive. The suburban economy that is replacing it achieves its tranquillity by offsetting its traffic and support services to its urban hinterlands. It can come into being only by demanding that services (such as sewer and water hookups) be provided below cost--subsidized partly out of general rather than local revenues--and it can grow only by demanding expensive road-widening projects, which degrade life in the communities the suburbanites must drive through in order to work in the city. It is precisely the nature of the suburb--designed as a residential shell lacking services, which are to be sought elsewhere--that is at the root of so much environmental degradation in developed countries today. For by placing residences far from services, and by centralizing services either in urban cores or in Wal-Mart-like or mega-mall clusters, suburban design requires excessive automobile use, which is accommodated by building wide, bleak high-speed roads and freeways. It even increases the cost of food for city dwellers by raising the assessed valuation of farmland and requiring farmers to move farther from the city. All for the sake of that backyard barbecue inside that redwood fence.

Every pink stucco house thrown up behind those walls means another several car trips through someone else's neighborhood every day. And, since not even the direct costs of automobile use are paid for by fuel taxes and other pertinent fees, every mile that that soccer mom, her husband, and her teenage kids are driving is being subsidized from general revenues provided by the residents of cities. (See Mark E. Hanson, "Automobile Subsidies and Land Use," Journal of the American Planning Association, vol. 58, No. 1,1992, pp. 60-71.) In fact, because the residents of inner cities drive the least, the poor are subsidizing the upper middle class!

What Are We to Do?

What are we to do? The problem seems so big, the developers have been in charge for over fifty years, and places such as Los Angeles, which used to have a world-class light rail system in the Pacific Electric Company, saw their public transit bought up and torn out by a consortium of oil and auto companies, destroying what could have been a model for urban development. And local governments especially seem to be in the pockets of the Big Money boys. What is there we can do?

A lot, in fact.

Love Thy Neighbor
After all, that soccer mom is like an addict. Instead of growing up next to a crack house, she grew up between a gas station and a new-car dealership; everyone she knew was a heavy user, and when she grew old enough, she tried a hit herself. Now it's taken over her life, and she does whatever she feels she must to support her habit--even if it means she has to rob you to do it. But it doesn't have to be that way. You don't really have to reach for a car first thing each morning. Once you become a recovering driver yourself, you'll be able to help her.

Start today.

Richard Risemberg